U.S. researchers scour Europe for bee sperm

Researchers at Washington State University are gathering bee sperm from across Europe to try to save American honeybees from the varroa mite — a key factor in colony collapse disorder, says Ryan Bell in FERN’s latest story, published with NPR’s The Salt.

“According to the WSU research team, the root cause of the U.S. honeybees’ vulnerability to varroa is a dwindling gene pool that has left them short on genetic traits that help honeybees resist varroa elsewhere in the world,” says Bell.

Honeybees, which aren’t native to North America, were brought by colonists. But since 1922, the U.S. has barred live honeybee imports, forcing the national population to interbreed and making them susceptible to disease and pests.

“Varroa mites are an invasive parasite from Asia that sucks hemolymph (bee blood) from adult and larval honeybees, weakening their immune systems and transmitting deadly pathogens, like bent-wing virus. If left untreated, a varroa infestation can kill a colony in one year,” says Bell. Last year, colony collapse disorder took out a third of hives around the country.

But by cryogenically freezing sperm from native honeybees from countries like Italy, Slovenia, Germany, and Kazakhstan, and then artificially inseminating queen bees back home, the WSU researchers are already seeing higher genetic diversity in the offspring. They’re hopeful they can isolate traits — like those from Russian bees that naturally bite and crush the mites and abort larval honeybees infested with mites — making it possible for beekeepers to avoid costly pesticides that have also been implicated in the collapse of colonies.